I'm an atheist who thinks morality is objective. That makes me probably a minority among my fellow atheists. I recently gave a talk in front of a local atheist group on the topic of morality where I argued it is objective. I've decided to share the notes that I used that summarized my presentation. This isn't anything I haven't written already, but it would otherwise just sit here unused, so here it goes.
- Define morality
- Show what I think is morality's origin
- Show why god cannot be the basis of morality
- Show how demonstrating this lead me to reject moral relativism
Morality is the distinction between right and wrong, or right and wrong behavior. Ethics is the branch of philosophy that deals with morality.
Show what I think is morality's origin:
- Imagine a universe devoid of all life. For if planets collide, stars explode, and back holes devour entire worlds and there is no life to be affected by these events, there isn't a moral component to this universe.
- So therefore we can say that at some very basic and fundamental level, morality has to concern living things. Living things must exist, because life can respond physically and emotionally where it can either benefit or suffer at the result of actions that happen to it.
- And the higher the level of sentiment of the creature, that is to say, the more conscious it is to respond and be aware of its environment, the more sensitive it will be to external actions that affect it.
- Therefore, it would logically follow that if morality depends on life, the more sensitive and consciously aware a living being is, the greater the moral concern should be with regards to actions that affect them.
- So a very broader definition of morality can be the distinction between right and wrong as it relates to the treatment of conscious beings, with right actions being those that positively affect conscious beings or intend to, and wrong actions being those that negatively affect conscious beings, or intend to, when it cannot be reasonably avoided.
Show why god cannot be the basis of morality:
- Euthyphro dilemma and epistemic problem
- Is something good because god commands it, or does god command it because it's good?
- If the former, morality is arbitrary. If the latter, morality exists independently of god.
- "God is good" fails. New dilemma: Is god good because of the properties he has (loving, kind, and fair), or are the properties that god has only good because god has them (is being loving, kind, and fair good because god has those properties)?
- If the former, then love, kindness, and fairness are objectively good independently of god. If the latter, totally circular: i.e. love is good because god is loving, and god is good because he's loving.
- No matter how you look at it you can never avoid a trilemma:
- arbitrarily decided by god
- circular reasoning
- morality exists independently of god
- Morality exists independently of god
- The only way to rationally ground morality is to show what it does. EXAMPLE: to intelligibly show why kindness is good, you have to show what kindness does: it positively affects conscious beings - that's why it is good.
- This lead me to think there is an objective basis.
- The only way to intelligibly ground morality is in what things do, what they intend to do, or a principle around them that includes what things do.
- Objective morality can still be relative to the species. Given our nature as human beings, as social primates, certain things will be good, certain things will be bad. Different nature, different morality. Still objective.